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Liz Boyle shows her COVID-19 vaccination card to host Kevin Meskan before entering a performance at City Winery in New York, as part of the venue’s coronavirus protocols, on May 26.

Victor J. Blue/The New York Times News Service

New York on Monday becomes the first major U.S. city to launch a vaccine passport system, marking a new phase in its efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus as caseloads there and across the country rise.

Once considered the epicentre of the virus in America – about 33,600 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 since February, 2020 – the city will now require all employees and customers at indoor restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues to provide proof that they have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

“This is a miraculous place literally full of wonders. And, if you’re vaccinated, all that’s going to open up to you. You’ll have the key. You can open the door,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Aug. 3 when unveiling the plan, called the Key to NYC Pass.

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“But, if you’re unvaccinated, unfortunately, you will not be able to participate in many things,” the mayor said. “It’s time for people to see vaccination as literally necessary to living a good and full and healthy life.”

Enforcement of the passport won’t begin until Sept. 13 to allow businesses “a chance to get acclimated,” Mr. de Blasio said. The city has yet to clarify what that enforcement will look like, though the mayor said there will be inspections and possibly fines issued for those who fail to comply.

For New York business owners whose bottom lines have been decimated by the pandemic, the new rules are largely seen as a necessary step for increasing the city’s vaccination rate and keeping customers safe – though some worry that businesses won’t be able to withstand another financial hit if they lose clientele or employees.

Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said that while the rise of the Delta variant is concerning, the restaurant industry is “being targeted” by the city’s vaccine mandate.

“Restrictions and polices that place the burden on bars and restaurants who never recouped lost revenue from the last 16 months will undoubtedly create more challenges,” Ms. Fleischut said in an e-mail statement. “Our government must continue to keep in mind the drawback this will create for an industry that is still struggling.”

New York joins countries including France and Italy in launching a vaccine passport. San Francisco went beyond New York’s mandate when Mayor London Breed announced on Thursday that residents 12 and older will have to show proof of full vaccination in order to enter indoor spaces starting Aug. 20.

In Canada, Quebec will bar unvaccinated individuals from entering non-essential public spaces, including bars, restaurants and gyms, starting on Sept. 1, and several universities are revising earlier guidance to now make vaccines mandatory for on-campus learning. Last week, Ottawa announced sweeping vaccine mandates for federal employees, workers in federally regulated industries and travellers on commercial airlines, interprovincial trains and cruises.

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The U.S. remains sharply divided on its handling of the pandemic, with mask requirements and vaccines often arising as flashpoints. Thousands of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers have gathered to protest against state or local mandates across the country since the pandemic began last year. States including Alabama and Mississippi have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with less than 40 per cent of their populations fully vaccinated.

Some governors have banned school districts from enforcing mask mandates – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold pay for school administrators who do so – although local jurisdictions are openly defying them and implementing their own requirements. States such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas have barred local governments or businesses from implementing vaccine passports.

Many New York universities, including NYU, CUNY and Columbia University, have already required all students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated before or at the start of the fall semester.

Approximately 62 per cent of New Yorkers have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and about 56 per cent are fully vaccinated, according to city data.

People who were vaccinated in New York State or New Yorkers vaccinated out of state can use the state’s Excelsior app to show their proof of vaccination to enter indoor spaces. Everyone, though, including tourists, can use the NYC COVID Safe app, which allows users to upload a photo of their ID and vaccine receipt. Businesses can also accept the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s paper vaccination card.

A city spokesperson said in an e-mail that any vaccine approved by the World Health Organization will be accepted, and further details regarding how the mandate will be enforced will be revealed later this week.

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The Chambers of Commerce in New York City’s five boroughs released a statement that said the city’s vaccine mandate “is a complicated decision,” but a “necessary step” for public health and safety and for preventing future economic shutdowns.

Jeff LaPadula – co-general manager of P.S. Kitchen, a vegan restaurant in Manhattan – said that the eatery was “pro-vaccine” and encouraged everyone to get vaccinated. Still, he was a little concerned that if customers show up without a vaccine card, the restaurant would have to turn them away and lose out on potential business.

“We want to do what’s right and what’s safe, so we’re going to do that, but you know, we’re also – we’re hardly in business,” he said. “If everybody got the damn vaccine, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Bob Provost, president and CEO of the New York State Tourism Industry Association, said the mandate will provide tourists with assurance that they can travel to the city safely and responsibly. And while he said he understood the concerns about losing business, the mandate is “far preferable” to the economic hit of another lockdown that could be caused by the rise of the Delta variant.

Some businesses had already been requiring proof of vaccination months before the citywide mandate.

When the CDC said in May that fully vaccinated individuals didn’t need to wear a mask (guidance that it has now reversed), New York State started allowing businesses to operate at full capacity, without social distancing or masking requirements, so long as all attendees were fully vaccinated.

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After that announcement, Joey Foley – who co-owns The Pedal House, an indoor cycling fitness studio in Manhattan, with his wife, Nada – started requiring customers to show proof that they were fully vaccinated before attending the studio’s classes.

“At the end of the day, I have a family to protect,” Mr. Foley said. “If this doesn’t work for you, don’t come here.”

He added that he was glad the city will be enforcing the vaccine mandate, as it will provide his business with extra support.

Randi Lee, the owner of Leland Eating and Drinking House in Brooklyn, has also been requiring customers to show their vaccination cards to eat or drink inside since May. All his staff have already been vaccinated; he and some of his coworkers even drove some staff members to get their shots.

“We just want everybody to be safe,” Mr. Lee said of the vaccine mandate. “I don’t understand why it took so long for [the city] to do it, but I’m glad they’re doing it now.”

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